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Chapter V - Growing Up on our Farm

By dhowell - Posted on 23 November 2013

The 20s and 30s on Our Farm

The story of farming has been spelled out, but life continued for us on the farm as we grew up. Prosperity turned into the deep depression and although profits and prices plunged or disappeared, the work and life went on and the farm continued to take care of our basic needs. We never were hungry and even sent some of the surpluses that couldn't be sold to Detroit to help Uncle Orrin's family. I can see bags of potatoes in his Studebaker and remember stories of Aunt Bertha preserving eggs in Water Glass (a heavy solution with glycerin, poured over them in a large crock to seal away the air and keep them from spoiling without refrigeration, I believe). There probably were garden vegetables and sweet corn in season, too.

The farm was in the Manchester School District so all of us completed grade and high school there. We were taken to school mornings in the car because Mom and Dad could sleep a little longer, but we walked the mile and 8/10th home. I made history walking home at noon after my first day in kindergarten, arriving there in tears with messy pants because I hadn't asked to go to the bathroom at my regular 10 a.m. bowel movement time.

The Family Chronology

I turn now to list key events extending beyond 1930 in sentence form, with only occasional details. The list should provide perspective to the story.

1926   Grandma (Louise) Parr dies.

1927   Grandpa remarries to Bessie Torrey

1933   Grandma (Ella May) Mattern comes to live with us after Grandpa dies. With some of her small amount of cash a new furnace is installed and the archway to the old parlor closed with doors to provide her own quarters. She may have helped provide our first refrigerator which was used in the woodshed for milk products, not as a kitchen appliance. She brought us our first radio, a cathedral style on its own stand, and we had to wire in a floor plug for it in the living room.

1933   Hazel is allowed to go to Ypsilanti State Normal to start her two year teaching course after graduation in 1933. Canned foods and baked goods are sent to her the first year at a rooming house. I believe she borrowed her tuition money from Grandma Mattern, probably $50-60/yr.

1933   Uncle Orrin Mattern dies tragically, the youngest of his six children six months old.


1935   Stanley graduates and hires out as a farm hand to Martin Hoelzer in Bridgewater Twp. The next year he works for Herman Wiedman. Salary about $40/mo. and includes room and board. Hazel comes home and teaches at Spafard School for $30/mo. plus $5.00 for firing the stove and janitor work.

1937   Stanley dies in January of cancer after a 6 month illness. I graduate in June, get a University of Michigan Alumni Tuition Scholarship and enter there for four years. I can earn room money ($2.50/wk) summers but borrow money for books from Grandma Mattern. (see Back to My Michigan)

1939   Leslie graduates and also goes to U of M. Hazel and Jesse Walker are married and set up housekeeping on his Lamb Road farm. (see Jesse Walker Barn Raising)

1940   Grandpa Parr dies.

Leslie, Hazel, Clayton, Willo, Floyd, Howard - 1943

1942   Floyd graduates and becomes the only boy to remain on the farm, helping Dad, earning money by working rented land with Dad's equipment until he starts accumulating his own, and takes an outside job. He is rejected by the Army for physical reasons. He attends Short Courses at Michigan State College. Uncle Walter comes to live with Mom and Dad.

1945   Grandma Mattern dies.

1946   Howard returns from the war, marries Lenora Haab, and continues teaching.

1947   Leslie completes college after the war, marries Pauline Deneau, and starts working as an automotive engineer.

1948   Floyd marries Florence Ashfall, moves to Ed Logan's farm they had bought.

Farming Changes in the 50s and 60s

Uncle Walter

When Dad started farming he needed a hired man to help. As we came along he didn't. By the time we had all left, electric power, tractors, and new machinery were available to permit him to get most of the work done alone. Uncle Walter was available to help with chores and work that didn't involve machinery. He never adapted to its use or learned to drive a car.

Farming continued as before but was easier as changes came along. Dad's first tractor was a John Deere H Model which could do the work of a team of light horses and had a pulley for belt work. Horse drawn tools were pulled by a shorter tongue (usually sawed off old ones) fitted with a tractor hitch. Horses were kept for some work and to be used at times by Uncle Walter because he preferred not to run machines and continued to do things the old way. The John Deere H was very economical and in a full day only burned 5 gallons of 15 cent/gal. fuel. But, this had to be purchased, unlike the "fuel" for horses. The Fairbanks and Morse engine was no longer needed as the "H" ground grain and buzzed the wood. Attachments for the tractor made cultivating corn easier and faster even though they had to be manually controlled. (Stanley provided a humorous cultivating story when he worked for Hoelzers. In the monotony of cultivating with their John Deere, he overran the fence at the end of a row as he yelled frantically to the "horses" to stop, forgetting to pull the clutch.)

The effect of modernization slowly crept into many aspects of farming that had required many workers and long hours. A John Deere B Model tractor was bought later because it was larger. The Surge Milking Machine allowed one man to do what had been done by four or five of us. The Galloway Separator was electrified to replace the person who once cranked it. Eventually there was an electric churn. An electric pump delivered water to a spigot in the house, doing away with trips to the well with a pail. Armfuls of wood weren't required for the bottled gas range, though the old stove was kept for heavy duty work. The vacuum sweeper eliminated carrying rugs outdoors to be hung on the clothesline and beaten with a rug beater. Mom couldn't resist the salesman who came along selling small Hamilton Beech electric motors to be hooked onto her sewing machine and eliminate the need for pedal power. More trips to town with the car might be made between the scheduled Wednesday and Saturday night shopping trips, though Dad didn't give up these nights in town to "visit" while Mom delivered butter/cream and shopped for groceries (she said she learned how to cut our hair by watching the barber cut hair as she sat in the car waiting for those "visits" to end.) (see Education of a Farmer)

The economic effect of these changes eroded the independence of the small farmer as more cash became necessary to purchase supplies no longer produced on the farm. The independence of a farmer also was slipping away as federal government programs began to control production and prices. Allocations for wheat and corn were introduced in an attempt to limit surpluses, and selected subsidies were set up to support basic prices. Farms were measured, allocations assigned for crops like corn and wheat, and surpluses purchased by the government to create shortages intended to raise prices. Dad worked for a time with the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) set up for farms, but never was a supporter of government involvement in farming. He was better than some who could then get away with simply ordering government men off their farms.

Clayton, Liz, Marcia and Hoppy - 1951

Increased efficiency gave him time to spend on other activities. He became a Justice of the Peace, holding court in the living room at times as he tried the small cases assigned to Justices. He was elected to the school board. He served as secretary to the M.E. Church Board for 40 years. He was also elected as Manchester Township Supervisor, serving in that position for nearly 20 years. As Supervisor he visited every farm in the Township annually to assess property for taxes, including personal property and a livestock census. Township Supervisors also met as a group to manage county affairs at monthly meetings in Ann Arbor. He took the time to get this outside work done as he continued farming.

As the years went on and major machinery changes took place, tractors and farming methods changed, but our farm stayed the same size and kind. The horse drawn equipment first modified for a small tractor was replaced by larger, more complex equipment. The grain binder and threshing were combined (hence today's term Combine) in one field machine. Grain could be cut and threshed in the field. In the hayfield, swaths of hay were picked up and baled in one operation, eliminating bulk hay handling. Hayloaders, slings, and hot haymows became a thing of the past. Corn started to be husked in the field and thrown into wagon boxes (called bang boarding because as men walked down the rows picking corn, the ears were thrown against a wide board above one side of the wagon box before falling back into the box). Soon this slow process was followed by corn picking machines which picked and husked the ears of corn and elevated them to a towed wagon. Gone were corn binders, corn shocks, and corn husking by hand in the field, as well as hauling crates of corn to corn cribs. With the introduction of hydraulics and its mechanical advantages, much larger and more powerful machinery was possible, to come into use on the larger fields which came as fences were removed from diversified farms as they changed into the cash crop farms of today.

Changing of the Guard

In 1965 Mom and Dad celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at home. In March the same year they decided to retire and bought a house in town. Instead of building a new one, they found an old one on Main Street. Dad said he liked it especially because when he left town, he turned the same way to go to their new home as he had when he went to the farm. He also picked an old house because he didn't have to wait for Maple trees to grow around a new one; he loved the ones he'd always had at the farm.

The Clayton Parr auction

Though this portion of the farm story doesn't describe the kind of farming I grew up with and have tried to describe earlier, it does involve the farm as well as Dad's plan for passing it on to his heirs. Income taxes, which started about the time the Folks were married, had grown to a major item. A quick calculation for capital gains alone showed he had paid a total of only $7500 for the land and buildings. Land alone now was probably worth several hundred dollars an acre and there were 250 acres, including his purchases, as well as the buildings. All increase in value would be subject to heavy taxes. If he picked a real estate agent to get the best price for it, his fee would be 10% of the selling price, costing even more. He wanted the highest amount possible to go to his kids, and came up with this plan to do it. In his words, "Your Mother and I didn't work fifty years to give what we earned to the government."

He picked an amount close to what he felt might be left after real estate commissions and the taxes on a market price, and sold it to his boys on a land contract at this lower price. This kept the amount owed the government the lowest he could. When we started paying off the land contract and he realized he owed all or most of our payments to the government as income taxes, he halted that process. Each year thereafter he endorsed the contract down $3,000 for each of his sons and to be fair, wrote Hazel a check for the same amount. Three thousand per year was the maximum "gift" allowed without taxes under the IRS rules. When the contract was paid off that way, his heirs had been treated equally and his sons had the farm. Taxes had been kept at a minimum. That's the way he wanted it and it was Justice of the Peace legal.